Colonel Henry Steele Olcott
by Sudharshan Seneviratne (2001/11/16)

[Extracts from the poem entitled Tribute to Ananda composed by Prasanna de Silva and published in the 1967 Post Senior Student English Union magazine, the Spark] 

The school that Olcott's dreams inspired
The school we all adore
The school that Kuntz and D.B. Sired
In years that went before
Where P De S with dauntless zeal
Enforced each guiding rule.
The school that through my stumbling years
Of childhood and callous youth
Taught me the worth of knowledge,
Of courage and of truth
The school that checked my erring ways
And made a man of me
Ananda ? now, and ever will, I humbly bow to thee!?


[Extracts from a poem read by a group that gathered in Adiar, Madras at Olcott's Memorial service celebrating his death anniversary in 1920]

?Stand we awhile in silence here apart
Heads bowed and hands in worship at our breast,
And strong within our heart
Great reverence, for here they laid to rest
Amid the bosom of the kindly flame
All of the earthly part
Of him whom Lanka oweth more than fame

He came no alien spirit from the west?
Nay as a welcome guest he came to Lanka
With strong gentle hand he healed the sick
Yet a far greater gift he brought
To once more uplift
Our dying nation in our listless land

In glad procession down our bannered ways
And bear their offering ?
Fragrance of blossom and incense sweet
Unto the temples of our lord once more
And at his blessed feet
Their reverence and gratitude outpour?

Venerable Sirs, my beloved parents, my teachers, Your Eminence, Chief Justice Mr. Sarath Silva, His Excellency Mr. Gopal Gandhi, Mrs. Gandhi, Mr. Steve Holgate representative of the US Ambassador, Principal of Ananda College, Distinguished Guests - very especially students of Ananda College.

I am deeply privileged indeed by your presence and for sharing my sentiments in honouring my Alma Mater and for joining me in celebrating the memory of Colonel Henry Steele Olcott. One may speak at the highest assembly or at the most prestigious national or international forum, yet I consider it a greater honour and privilege to address the Ananda fraternity and its wellwishers. Therefore, do let me express my sincere thanks to you all for gracing this occasion. On a personal note, Your Excellency, Mr. Gandhi and Mr. Holgate, I am very pleased to note your presence here today. As representatives of two countries, where Colonel Olcott was born and finally laid to rest, your very presence has an additional significance for me. My own outlook has been enriched through many years of association with the wonderful academic community and the vibrant intellectual climate in India and in the USA.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this evening I wish to dwell into an important issue that looms heavy on our socio-cultural horizon. It is a trajectory concerning knowledge information, its multi and inter-cultural context and its recipients - the next generation. Both, as a student and academic, in the Sri Lankan, Indian and North American educational systems, I am very much alive to the enormous complexities involved in the application and maximization of knowledge information in multi-cultural societies. It is my intention today to draw your attention as parents, teachers and as concerned citizens to certain critical issues that are relevant to the very existence and sustenance of our island society in the coming decades.

First, let me take up the concept of knowledge. I do not wish to engage myself in the polemics of epistemology (that is the definition of knowledge) or cognition (or what is known as the process of knowing, perceiving and thinking). The Mediterranean region had its boom time in knowledge information in the 6th Century BC. The application of knowledge introduced through Colonialism into this part of the world was in turn an inheritance of a long tradition of questioning the existence of reliable knowledge and objective knowledge by the 5th Century BC Greek Sophists and philosophers. This was transmitted through the 16th and 18th Century thinkers all the way down to Wittgenstein's influence on positivism and pragmatism finally returning in a full circle to the Platonic efforts at attempting to understand the concept of knowledge. 

Significantly enough, in the 6th Century BC the quest for knowledge was hotly debated in the Middle Gangetic valley of India as well. The tradition of seeking knowledge and cosmic truth however goes back to an earlier period or to the Upanishads. In Sanskrit the term Vidya, in its direct sense implies knowledge. The term Bodh has wider connotations such as perception, knowledge, observation, conception, understanding, intellect, intelligence, awakening and consciousness. Buddhi means realization and intelligence to perceive and Bodhi is perfect wisdom and enlightenment.

Knowledge, perceived in its most complex and vibrant forms in 6th Century BC south Asia, is best found in the Brahmmajala sutta expounded by Siddhartha Gautama. The bottom line in the Buddhist theory of knowledge is understanding things in their true perspective. Knowledge then is also equated with the concept of truth? or reality. It then brings out the best of the humane spirit in perceiving this knowledge. In the Majjhima Nikaya this is described as Svakkhato bhagavata dhammo (lucidly explained is the Dhamma by the enlightened one), sanditthiko (to be self-realized), akaliko (timeless), opanayiko (inviting investigation), paccahattm veditabbo vinnuhiti (to be realized by ones own self).

Thus knowledge cannot be imposed from above but is to be realized through an uninhibited spirit of inquiry devoid of any religious trappings and dogmas. Siddhartha Gautama instructed the members of the Kalama lineage, that knowledge could not be realized through revelation, tradition, and the teachers' word and even by pure reasoning and logic. One, who seeks knowledge, said Gautama, must break away from the four extremes or fetters (satara agati) identified as, chanda (bias), dosha (prejudice), bhaya (fear) and moha (delusion). This in fact is a sound recipe for modern research methodology, nurturing intellectual expressions devoid of any inhibitions and parochialism. Knowledge defined in Buddhist epistemology had a definitive goal i.e. the final termination of consciousness clinging on to material conditions where both are in a constant state of flux. One of Anandas brilliant past pupils, the late W.S. Karunaratne, Professor of Philosophy at Peradeniya and our former Ambassador to the USA, had a simple formula for explaining this central philosophy in the following words

What is mind, never matter-
What is matter, never mind!

Knowledge was valued in a worldly sense too. This boils down to common sense application of life skills. Even in the Buddhist texts of lay ethics (Sigalovada sutta and Parabhava sutta for example) correct livelihood based on social-friendly life skills finds a prominent place. In the Jataka texts we read of the acharin at Taxila who imparted their knowledge on various subjects to young students from elite families. The ancient city of Taxila, nurtured by the best of indigenous and Indo-Greek cultural traditions, is in fact a classic example for a cosmopolitan multi-cultural centre of learning in historical south Asia. The Manu Dharmashastra and even early inscriptions give priority to instructions in the political-economy, currency systems and accountancy, combat art etc. as life skills prescribed in the curriculum imparted to royalty of that time. The Arthashastra of Kautilya (a third Century BC thesis on the political-economy of north India) provides an excellent insight into early historic pragmatism and worldly knowledge of seeking power and political legitimization. The curriculum at great universities of the Middle Historic period, such as Nalanda and in our country at Abhayagiri, apparently went beyond philosophy and logic. Historical sources of south Asia in general mention specialist teachers in music, dancing, the martial arts, astronomy, therapeutic systems, alchemy etc. There were even specialized manuals on architecture, sculpture, medicine including sensual pleasures, indicating some areas of study that constituted this very vibrant system of information that was based on a holistic approach to knowledge.

Let me next take up the multi-cultural issue. Culture and environment cannot be isolated from each other. As professional archaeologists we touch material culture and diverse cultural expressions situated within different eco-systems. The symbiotic relationship between the resident community and its natural environment results in a diverse form of techno-cultural responses that are ultimately expressed through social, economic, political and religio-cultural institutions. Each community carries its own cultural personality while it shares many elements of other techno-cultural groups as well. Cultural diversity is a living reality and will continue to be so despite the overarching (and imagined) global culture imposed from above

The cultural landscape of Sri Lanka essentially represents an island society having multi cultural and varied biological identities. It was peopled by periodic community intrusions (since 25,000 BC) resulting in the introduction of a variety of ideas, technological traditions, dialects, and belief systems including ethno-cultural diversity to this island. The historical traditions of each religious, language and ethnic group were transmitted through oral and the written medium and ultimately conveyed to the next generation along, both, familial and institutional sources - such as religious organizations, the school system and the state. Thus, even in contemporary Sri Lanka we possess ethnic, language, religious and religio-cultural diversity providing this island society with multiple identities. In to this, one may also add class, caste and gender variations that have an additional bearing on identities shaping the cosmopolitan cultural ethos of this island. I am proud to be a product of this cultural diversity that has provided Sri Lanka with one of the richest island cultures in the world in contrast to its physical size. The critical question to pose, as Lynch does in his thought provoking paper entitled Human Rights, Racism and the Multicultural Curriculum is, the level of our commitment to the ethical aspect of respecting other cultures. This is all about sensitivity towards cultural identities and interaction among culturally diverse resident communities that may be identified as interculturism.      

It is the community of children and youth that I identify as the next generation. They are the inheritors of our world and whatever legacy we bequeath to them. We have a moral obligation to manage the present world with wisdom for their very existence. As much as we have borrowed the environment from the next generation it is incumbent upon us to pass down the best elements of our inherited culture to them. Transmission of wisdom and appropriate knowledge is all about that. We must respect their aspirations, place greater confidence in their judgement and provide the next generation with all the space they require for their expression.  If we are unable to come to terms with that obligation, the next generation will turn on our generation with a vengeance. The human carnage of 1971, 1983, 1987-89 is a harsh reminder of that reality. There is yet much soul searching to be done as to why several generations of Sinhala and Tamil speaking youth took up arms against the existing socio-political and economic system and sacrificed their lives to realize a dream of creating their own space and culture. Not only has our generation failed to come up with answers we have miserably failed even to understand the problem. The critical factor to be noted is, each individual from the next generation is a non-renewable resource. The dismal failure of our generation to grasp common sense realities, as I have identified elsewhere, is the real curse of Kuveni.

I shall move deeper into my topic by journeying with you through the early history of Ananda and the ideals enshrined in its mission by its founder fathers. Were these ideals continued? If they were altered, when and how did its mission or ideals change? What was the context of this change? What is the mission of Ananda and other national schools in playing the role model for the next phase of education in a multi-cultural society situated within altering patterns of globalization? 

My task here today is not to discuss Olcott's biography or to carry out a critique of his biographers. These sentiments could not have been better expressed in those articulated by Anagarika Dharmapala who wrote the following lines when the news of Olcott's demise reached him in 1907. Death has taken away from our midst a great personality who has left his mark on the progress of thought. Posterity will form a better estimate than we knew. We judge only his views; not himself personally. Of him we have nothing but the kindest love..

What we need is certainly not the construction of Great Beings (Mahapursha) but a sober perception of history in understanding the proper context of social demands and social movements triggering off change. Let me elaborate the concept on Great Beings and also context in some detail as these have a direct bearing on our discussion.

As a social historian, I do not subscribe to the view that individuals, great men or women make history. We are all essentially products of a particular socio-cultural milieu of a given time and place in history. I could not agree more with EH Carr who brilliantly states this fact in his book What is History !As soon as we are born, the world gets to work on us and transforms us from merely biological into social units. Every human being at every stage of history or pre history is born into a society and from his earliest years is moulded by that society. The language he speaks is not an individual inheritance, but a social acquisition from the group in which he grows up. Both language and environment help to determine the character of his thought; his earliest ideas come to him from others. The individual apart from society would be, both, speechless and mindless.  As Carr correctly points out, even Robinson Cruso was most certainly not an abstract individual.

I wish to place before you, as a historian-archaeologist, the modalities of reading the past in the present with a futuristic design. In our profession, we deal with and reconstruct the living past?. Behaviour patterns and thinking processes of past societies are therefore situated within a time and space context. A material object, culture patterns or social behaviour of the past have a meaning and value to us only if these are properly contextualized. Taken out of its time, space, physical and societal context an object or expression has no value to it. In any science or discipline, context (or the immediate mental, social or material situation) is critical to any form of data retrieval and interpretation. An individual, he or she, cannot be divorced from the context of time, place, society and its cultural ethos within which they interact, live and express ideas, emotions and passions.

The socio-cultural milieu is not a constant factor either. The notion that Asian societies are static entities devoid of change is a fallacious legacy of Colonial historiography. Elsewhere we have pointed out that often the Classical texts of Sri Lanka, such as the Mahavamsa, have received the same treatment or have been interpreted out of context in explaining the origins of contemporary ethnic violence in Sri Lanka. This is linear history at its best and I have identified it as Mahavamsa bashing?.  As we shall see, this academic treatment of the third degree has been meted out to Olcott as well.

A brief discussion of the background, I therefore feel, is in order as a plethora of popular beliefs, myths and a wide range of positive and negative sentiments has been expressed about Olcott's life and work carried out in Sri Lanka and India. Most western or western-based Sri Lankan anthropologists, historians including ultra nationalists in Sri Lanka have quite often approached Olcott's biography by taking him out of context. As a consequence, such scholars found the life and activities of Olcott enigmatic and have leveled criticisms against Olcott's intellectual personality and contributions. He was often labeled, along with Anagarika Dharmapala, a Protestant Buddhist, an Orientalist, a person with two faces, one who carried the ?White Man?s Burden? and imposed his will on the unsuspecting masses of South Asia and most recently, a former colleague has added yet another dubious term called Olcott Buddhists to this list.

In order to evaluate Olcott?s contribution one has to take cognizance of his own backdrop within the late 18th Century American society and the Colonial context in South Asia during the parallel period. In 1832, when Olcott was born in New Jersey, political, religious and philosophical ferment were sweeping across the USA. Stephen Prothero describes in his book The White Buddhist, the complex and rich personality of Olcott as a - nineteenth Century Renaissance man, theosophist, attorney, agricultural reformer, spiritualist, reporter, drama critic, editor, investigator of Lincoln?s assassination, and an unwearying spirit who was the first American of European descent to formally convert to Buddhism. It is possible that Olcott was inspired by Jacksonian Democracy, Liberal Protestantism, campaigns for social justice such as women?s rights, temperance and the abolition of slavery including his adventures of ?going west? as far as Ohio. All this may have shaped the spirit and sharpened the mind that came to be expressed at its best in South Asia. In his own words, on May 15th 1880, the day before he landed for the first time in Sri Lanka, Olcott wrote ??. New and great responsibilities are to be faced; momentous issues hang on the result of this visit??.                 

It is not incorrect to say that prior to any form of indigenous anti Colonial movement, 18th and 19th Century Orientalism played a critical role in awakening nascent nationalist sentiments. The winds of change that swept through Europe with the emergence of the Industrial Revolution precipitated an unprecedented institutional crisis by the restructuring of its economy and by the uprooting traditional value systems and the existing social system. A series of intellectuals in Europe were not only looking to the east in search of lost humanism, but they were also making, both positive and negative connections. One of the negative connections was the transformation of language groups, such as Arya and Dravida, into racial categories. Some scholars, nurtured in the Classical Greco-Roman culture, not only romanticized the east but they also looked for the resurgence of the lost ?Golden Age? associated with particular ?racial? groups and past cultures. The subversion of Friedrich Nietzsche?s works and the incipient origins of Nazism may be traced to 18th Century notions of the lost innocence of the ?Folk?. On the positive side there was an explosion of Oriental and Indological studies. The study of the classical texts, Eastern religions, inscriptions, ancient sculpture, art and architecture, to mention a few areas, that had a direct bearing on the subsequent nationalist movement that searched for its roots in the past. Not only did south Asian nationalist movements begin to ?glorify the past? and draw its ?identity consciousness? from this rich cultural heritage but it also moulded the nationalist ideology as an anti thesis to Colonialism that subsequently developed strong racial undertones especially during the late Colonial and Post Colonial periods.

Olcott in fact arrived in South Asia at this juncture. By then, the Buddhist revivalist movement, which was the forerunner to the nationalist movement, had already taken off the ground, challenging more the Soldiers of Christ than soldiers of the Colonial State. Olcott was the catalyst that gave this movement greater sophistication, organization and a cosmopolitan identity. He drew on his own religio-cultural backdrop in the USA instilling the concept of organization. Prothero records Olcott?s achievements in the following manner. Olcott used catechisms, translation of scriptures into vernacular languages, founded Sunday Schools and other educational establishments, Youth Organizations (YMBA), conducted open air revivals, and established parish like organizations, founded the Buddhist flag, called for social reforms, temperance, women?s rights, animal rights and tried hard to modernize agriculture and worked on medical and technological innovations.

Olcott?s greatest gift to Sri Lanka was the school system based on a modern curriculum. He realized that the traditional classical educational system, situated within the confines of the temple based purely on religious knowledge, was incapable of countering the evangelical zeal, the Colonial culture and the Colonial mind. In fact, the original name of the school in 1886 was The Buddhist English School, before it was renamed Ananda in 1895. This was his response to various Christian missions that had a virtual monopoly over the teaching of English following the recommendations of the Colebrooke Commission in the 1830?s. The Central School Commission of 1842, according to the report The Betrayal of Buddhism, had only Christian clergy with no representation at all from other non-Christian denominations. The Christian majority continued to remain so even as late as the 1930?s.

The process of decolonization was introduced at the level of education by a well-tuned synthesis of south Asian and western classical culture along with the sciences. Students were inducted into humanistic traditions devoid of parochial thinking. This was the best of the liberal arts tradition Olcott introduced from his country and his ideal ? where East and West he believed met in perfect harmony through common humane aspirations. This was a new intellectual ethos gifted to this country by Olcott. If one wishes to capture the embodiment of that cultured spirit in an individual, please remember the personality of the late Mr. S.A. Wijaytilleke. He was not only a product of this educational system but was also the Principal of Ananda prior to his retirement. Wijaytilleke personified and emulated the very essence of this liberal education. I yet recollect this soft spoken intellectual quoting from the Classical Latin and Sanskrit texts with equal fluency, eloquently explaining both Biblical and Buddhist stories, elaborating and interpreting Rabindra Sangeet and western classical music and then going on to list modern scientific achievements with absolute familiarity.  What more could knowledge gift to humanity. Compare this with the poverty of our hopeless system of education! 

As much as Ananda and its sister schools were created to cater to the Buddhist public less privileged under Colonialism, religious pluralism and humanistic values of the Theosophical society were strongly ingrained in its personality. Reading through the list of past teachers, pupils, principals and those who funded the school, it is evident that they were not restricted to Sinhala - speaking Buddhists. They came from all walks of life, from different regions in Sri Lanka, and from different countries, ethnic, language and religious groups. There were the Tamil-speaking Hindus (mainly from Jaffna), Malays, Muslims, Dutch-Burghers, Americans, British, Burmese, Chinese and Germans. At one time, the central committee of the TULF and the Burmese cabinet had more past pupils of Ananda than the numbers found in the cabinet of Ceylon at that time. Many specialist doctors, scientist, lawyers, academics and members of the corporate sector present here today are indebted to all those wonderful Sinhala-speaking and Tamil?speaking teachers who educated them in the true spirit of ?knowledge? unhindered by any parochial images that haunt our minds to day. The College Magazine, The Anandian, had until the early 1950?s, carried sections providing necessary space for cultural and intellectual expressions in all three national languages.

Ananda, in the early 20th Centuries was not only a centre for the renaissance culture and learning, but was also a place of convergence for anti-Colonial sentiments. Several anti Colonial campaigns (such as the Sooriya Mal campaign) and fund-raising campaigns were launched from this school. Leaders of the early 20th Century national movement and later those of the radical center and left movements were either educated or were associated with Ananda.

It is not a coincidence that similar ideas on cosmopolitan cultural adaptations were expressed in India during the same period. Following Ram Mohan Roy?s vision, Rabinranath Tagore was articulating the ideal of the ?Universal Man? based on mutual understanding of cultures and cooperation among people. The Santiniketan founded in 1901 was modeled after the Tapovana or ?forest hermitage?, the sacred space for knowledge contemplation in south Asia. In 1921 Tagore went a step further and established the humanistic University, Visva?Bharati, at Santiniketan aimed at synthesizing the best of western and eastern cultures.

Post-Colonial institutional formation has turned out to be a traumatic experience for Sri Lanka and its regional neighbors as well. The region as a whole is yet venturing along a painful path coming to grips with the hard realities of social change, identities and access to resources and power in a post Colonial context. This process has strong undertones of political legitimation based on ethno-linguistic, ethno-religious and ethno-cultural identities while centrifugal forces are in motion at different levels.  This is further compounded by internal readjustments demanded by those who wish for alternative political systems ? such as social fascism, and externally through altered processes of globalization.  The terminal period of ?liberal education? at Ananda and in the school system in general coincided with the emergence of ultra nationalist Sinhala as well as Tamil movements in the decade of 1950 and the schools take over by the state in the following decade. This total process had an impact on the free flow of knowledge to the next generation.

Post-Colonial educational changes had a devastating impact on my generation and after. Sectarian biases and prejudices, political interference at all levels came to be institutionalized and imposed from above upon the educational structure, resource persons and curriculum by successive governments. The long-term consequence of this was the outbreak of several youth uprisings, a tragic war of attrition and a culturally lumpanized society. This unfortunate contradiction brings to my mind the words of Charles Dickens.

?It was the best of times
It was the worst of times
It was the Age of Wisdom
It was the Age of foolishness
It was the epoch of belief
It was the epoch of incredulity
It was the season of light
It was the season of darkness
It was the spring of hope
It was the winter of despair
We had everything before us
We had nothing before us
We were all going direct to heaven
We were all going direct the other way.
(Tale of Two Cities)
Situate our existing ?knowledge-bearing? educational system against this backdrop! The scenario outlined below strongly suggests that we reorient our priorities and remedial strategies without further delay.

To what extent is our educational system knowledge-oriented? Is it capable of developing the intellectually oriented multi-cultural personality of the next generation? Do we even provide sufficient space for knowledge? Do we simply equate knowledge for our immediate subsistence and livelihood requirements and reduce it to a demand and supply dictum? Is knowledge per se a luxury for developing countries? Being very pragmatic about it, do we then draw a distinction between knowledge and education? Is our educational system parochial, inward looking and stagnant?

In any event to what extent has the educational system in this country sustained our national development grid? Our economy is yet sustained to a large extent, by traditional natural resource exports, export-oriented factory products and blue-collar remittances from the Middle East. Ours is best described as a merchant economy. As much as we proudly claim to be partners in the global economy it is an unequal partnership as we are at the wrong end of the scale due to the dependent nature of our economy. In his classic, Education in Ceylon Before and After Independence, written over three decades ago, Professor J.E. Jayasuriya quite pointedly states the following. ?The school curriculum has been enslaved by an expressively academic approach which has no relation to the life in general and to the social context of the pupil in particular.? Education in the post Independence period quite obviously was not geared towards disseminating knowledge or life skills.

Are we then awaiting some miracle to happen through the universal remedy for ignorance ? or the mantra called Information Technology (IT)? Knowledge-based Economy was the focal theme at the SLAAS sessions in year 2000 and this year it is Sustainable Development: Key to National Progress. There is much excitement about the concept of knowledge-based economy as with so many other borrowed concepts, such as, Sustainable Development and the so-called Green Revolution. Is this a new term for the old concept we knew in the past as ?job-oriented education?? While recognizing the functional value of IT as a tool, we cannot expect the ?machine? to think on our behalf. To the private sector promoting IT in our educational system it is quite obviously a sound investment venture, which is good business sense. Sadly, education managers/planners are deeply confused about knowledge information. They have commited the fatal error of elevating the ?machine? to a knowledge-bearing source. As a consequence, they may very soon explore the possibility of making particular disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities become redundant, as those fields of studies are ?not economically viable? and ?not profit-oriented?. Contrary to this, the attitude of the corporate sector in the US in the recent years has been ?we sure need nerds ? but give us cultured nerds?. They have in fact made substantial endowments towards programs maintaining a healthy balance between the Arts and Sciences in the Liberal Arts schools. In their view, the development of a well-rounded intellectual personality capable of using the ?machine? as a tool in creative work is better for business as against an aesthetically dull-witted technocrat.

Do we even have an action plan synthesizing programs of national development and education? Do let me come back to some ideas of Professor Jayasuriya. In Chapter XIV he notes, that education today is languishing under the crude sandal of narrow-minded and opinionated, compliant and mediocre bureaucracy in the Ministry of Education driven by petty careerism. Their ignorance and incompetrence, he goes on to say, is evidenced by the puerile textbooks which are forced on teachers and pupils alike. These words of wisdom were expressed before the 1971 youth uprising of the JVP. Negative planning at all levels in education played a major role in marginalizing several generations of youth, both, in north and south Sri Lanka from the decision-making processes in society, economy and polity when they finally decided to carve out a niche for themselves within an alternative system. Is the educational system then an artificial limb supporting our crippled minds projecting pretensions of reaching out to fellow humans intellectually and emotionally? Is the existing system of education so bankrupt that it perpetuates the ?Development of Underdevelopment? (apologies to Gunder Frank) resulting in the liquidation of the next generation every ten years or so? Is our next generation then, whom I call after Franz Fenon the ?Wretched of the Earth? and a disposable item? 

In a politically volatile society where major structural alterations are in motion, education is the first victim with healthcare coming a close second. To blame it on the backwardness caused by four hundred years of Colonial exploitation, the non-existence of the state-of-the-art techniques, a lack of proper infrastructure facilities, or even necessary resource-persons is less than one half of the truth. The critical factor is something much deeper, archaic and primordial. There are problems of attitudes, priorities and our inability to evaluate, contextualize, be conscious of social realities and be open to change. Secondly, even after five decades into the post - Colonial period there is much to be desired in our standard of professionalism, ethical code of conduct, managerial skills and accountability, especially in the field of education. This is with special reference to the existing modalities of knowledge management, its appropriate use, its viable application and the quantitative and qualitative levels of humane transmission of knowledge to the next generation.

In short, even in year 2001, we are yet incapable of preparing a user-friendly school textbook that is devoid of grammatical errors, factual errors, misinformation, inaccurate maps and other graphics and parochialism with a tunnel-view. The student in modern Sri Lanka suffers from multiple tragedies fostered on them by our generation. They are entrapped within a vicious and sub-standard tuition market. They are crushed under a curriculum that is dreadfully boring, inaccurate, irrelevant and overloaded with unimaginative information. They suffer from a depraved knowledge murdering and intelligence-purging examination system where the student is forced to regurgitate memorized ?information? and most certainly not knowledge. Creative thinking is an alien concept to most school and University teachers who fear the inquiring mind and resent any intellectual initiative of the student. Finally, when these totally burnt out students reach the University level, they are hung out to dry, with no assurance of a seat in the University.

We must congratulate ourselves for creating the nursery for anarchism and social fascism. In other words, we have mastered the technique of conditioning psychologically ?suicidal? students who will one day destroy the society that failed to accommodate them with dignity. Mercifully several attempts made by them failed but each time the system has taken an irreparable beating. In any event we are amongst the top five in suicide rates in the world! The state sector establishments of educational planning, especially Education offices and the University Grants Commission, are redundant relics representing a decadent politicized academic-administrative ?Mafia?. Even in this year of 2001, they are yet entrapped in the shackles of semi-feudal ties in their social and psychological make up. The dynamics of this system breeds ?Slitherings? (or Slytherin after JK Rowling) capable of perpetuating only a perverted system of dependent - patronage. They have compromised their social obligations, ethical norms and basic levels of human decency in lieu of political patronage and perks. This is Kali-yuga or the ?age of Kali? indeed!

Redefining Education for the next generation
It is by and large the subversion of knowledge dissemination and the termination of liberal education that became a catalyst, conditioning the abysmal situation in the post-Colonial period. It unleashed a vicious crisis resulting in the vertical division of our society into watertight mental compartments along ethno-national lines and the long-term attrition of democratic norms and the cultural plurality in this country. Being the first post Colonial generation, we viewed sectional ideologies as a natural consequence of an identity based on religion, caste, language and ?race? in the evolution of social systems in post Colonial south Asia. Sri Lanka was beginning to look like a pie chart representing sectarian dichotomies. Reggie Siriwardena highlights this tragedy in the following words. ?In the history of communal conflict in Sri Lanka especially in the last quarter of a century, education has been one of the principal battlegrounds?. Texts books became the ?New Testament of Parochialism?, derailing any sense of aesthetic and intelligent appreciation of technological and cultural achievements of humanity. 

For centuries the rich cultural personality of this island was nurtured through cross-cultural interactions. It is ironic that during the advanced period of ?print capitalism? (after Ben Anderson) sustaining distance contraction, we have constructed vertically arranged ethno-national compartments. Conversely, we must now come to terms with a national identity with two compartments ? a national and multiple cultural identities. As Eric Wolf rightly points out ?One nation or culture cannot be studied in isolation because human populations construct their cultures in interaction with one another.? (Europe and the People without History) Even the Diaspora does not form an isolated entity. One of the critical challenges facing educational reforms in Sri Lanka is bridging national, religious and cosmopolitan identities, a situation that was managed in Singapore with great success.

In her book Eduaction for a Multicultural Society, my colleague Professor Ashoka Jayasena writes, ?multi-culturality is a social reality in Sri Lanka and this fact has to be recognized in all educational institutions. The call for acceptance and respect of other cultures is based on the belief that the existence and expressions of differences can improve the quality of life for individuals, for all cultural groups and for society as a whole.? It is time for us to look beyond the narrow confines of the monolinguistic-compartmentalized curriculum and take stock of the subjective and objective ground realities in the interest of the very survival of a historically evolved social fabric in this country. Conversely we also have to pose the question whether we should opt for an inter-cultural curriculum in a multi cultural society. In a groundbreaking paper entitled ?Things Fall Together? (1994), Cornwell and Stoddard question the limitations of multiculturalism as a paradigm for the study of cultures and their interactions. The question then is, whether multiculturalism actually excludes the concept of dominant and subordinate culture? This, according to the authors only provides an overarching world-view and its curriculum may reproduce ?monolithic view of cultures?. Hence the authors are of the view that intercultural studies could more effectively examine cultures interacting, calling attention to cultures as dynamic processes.

The late Ravindra Kumar, former Director of the Nehru Memorial Museum in New Delhi, noted that while the economic aspect of education fosters life skills, the cultural role of education is critical for social sustenance. This is because while on the one hand education reproduces certain traditions and values, it is also expected on the other hand to ?install the notion of curiosity and innovation and also examine conventional wisdom and inherited values in the minds of the young?. This is a critical social and cultural function of education coalescing with knowledge information through formal and informal learning. He then concludes that the location of a liberal and egalitarian system of education is an imperative (Seminar 1978). 

In order to revive the lost tradition of liberal education, one of the priority areas is to de-link the state from the process of education management and neutralize state sponsored textbook writing as a logical step in this direction. In this connection reading MN Roy, the radical humanist, is an education to all tightrope walking democratic regimes in Sri Lanka and any aspiring social fascist and other totalitarian regimes of the future. ?The purpose of government education is to create mental conformism. You have to sing patriotic songs, salute national flags and read patriotic history as compiled and edited by governments, so that all people be merged into a homogenous collectivity and forget they are individuals..?. Hence, there is danger in the demand that governments provide all education, especially in backward and largely illiterate countries. Because democracy will not be possible until people are taught to remember preciously their critical faculties which governments naturally fear?. and this is not taught under government-sponsored systems of national education.? These statements made in 1949 are valid to this day! (Politics, Power and Parties).

State ?controlled? education has outrun its functional use in the new pan national context. The emergence of alternative information systems and centers of primary, middle and high schools including degree-awarding centers outside the pale of state control is a case in point. This is not to say that state funding be withdrawn. Economic disparities within south Asian societies necessitates that state funding is provided but without state control over the dissemination of knowledge. In 1979, the late Professor S. Gopal (Emeritus Professor JNU) in one of his most powerful documents, The Fear of History, made a fervent appeal to the Indian government. ??.to ensure that their control of the financial levers is not exploited to restrict the independence of the academic community and, what is even more reprehensible, to interfere with the processes of thought and the conclusions of research?.  If the need of the hour is prioritizing the acceptance of a plural society, it must then thrive within a liberal education rubric. Roy in fact elaborates this in the following words. ?Education for democracy does not consist in teaching just reading and writing, but in making people conscious of their humanness, in making them conscious of their right to exist as human beings, in decency and dignity. Education means to help them to think, to apply their reason?.  Whether this will be achieved under a curtailed state controlled system or private system is yet to unfold in clear terms even as a concept. The dilemma whether ?Education cannot be given free? or ?Knowledge is not for sale? must be resolved within this decade.

I had the privilege of associating myself with policy planning committees in the USA with the Freeman and Starr Foundations funding the cross cultural program at Carleton College (a liberal arts school) and another program sponsored by the Agha Khan Foundation for a proposal to establish a College of Arts and Science in Pakistan. If Pakistan is willing to take up this challenge in a less open society, why are we in Sri Lanka unable to do so? Our suggestion to these agencies was the need to have multiple goals:

Preparing the student for global citizenship in a shrinking world; Distinction between knowledge and skills; Education as a vehicle of change for construction and sustenance; Multi disciplinary research into intercultural inquiry; Humanizing the sciences; Cosmopolitan education; The need for  internationalizing and diversifying higher education; Awakening of the next generation to the complexities of the global economy. Problem-oriented and issue-related curriculum. Heterogeneous faculty and students.

This almost runs parallel to the vision of Olcott - what we once possessed and then lost later.

In my concluding section I wish to briefly touch upon the American tradition of the Liberal Arts schools that produced Olcott and what I was able to share during several of my visits to the USA.  The following extracts are taken from the Tallman Lecture I delivered in 2000 at Bowdoin College, Maine.

?I wish to record my sentiments about the gifted academic and intellectual tradition and environment here. Though I am associated with a large University system in Sri Lanka and my initial experience in the USA were with larger Universities, I have now come to appreciate and admire the role played by the small Liberal arts schools. The content of these schools reached out to me and touched me in a very special way. I sat in the Zen garden at Carleton College and listened to a student practice her musical instrument while another meditated as if he was inspired by the very poetry of life. I talked to the students of St. Olaf, Colby and Bowdoin Colleges on Human Rights issues and watched the commitment and feelings of humanity in their eyes. Geology and Bio major students had intense debates with me in their seminar course on Archaeology and Nationalism. A science major student wishes to study Asian religions and takes a semester off to travel to the Far East touching humanity of other cultures and returns with that rich experience of cross cultural interaction. I have read a constant flow of papers and debates from the liberal arts schools denouncing human exploitation, environmental destruction, violation of human rights and the military-industrial complex.  

The world at large knows this country more for its negative global responses. The intellectual tradition of your country enshrined in the liberal arts schools is less known outside its shores. The humane values found in your constitution and those ideals cherished by a community that escaped religious persecution elsewhere and those ideals valued in the traditions of the indigenous people in this country, are best preserved in the schools of Arts and Sciences. It is also said that these schools are like protective bubbles, affluent and elite. Please do not apologize for the wonderful things you enjoy. It is said that one must gracefully accept elitism and affluence. Here one is not taught to flout affluence and elitism in a vulgar and hedonic manner. You reach out to people, care about them and become sensitive to another point of view, cultures, belief systems and social realities. If that is elitism ? then enjoy and celebrate it! It is my sincere wish that the tradition of liberal arts in this country may reach even greater heights in its cultural and intellectual achievements as a gift to humanity.?

Two Science Major students from the Liberal Arts Consortium associated with the US-Sri Lanka Inter-Collegiate Program (ISLE) of 2000 expressed the following inner impressions about the Mahastupa during their field visit to Anuradhapura. This is cultural interaction at its best!

One wrote: ?We arrived at the Mahastupa near sunset, the dome arising huge against a stormy sky. I had expected nothing more than a white stupa ? so I was nearly as astonished by my own reaction to the stupa as to the stupa itself. It drew all of us in. I felt pulled by the combined effect of its simplicity and its size; in its quiet grace it had incomparably more power than any of the ornate cathedrals of the religion I am accustomed to. This, I thought, is as close as people can get to build a mountain. And I was grateful to have the time to sit and watch the sky darken behind the stupa?.

The other wrote: ?The stupa is a bitter sweet place; devotion here takes two forms, sadness at the death of the Buddha but happiness at his escape from future births. I witnessed the mood on the faces of the pilgrims at the Mahastupa. One woman dressed in white was in tears as she offered puja flowers. Others were smiling?I witnessed an attempt to synthesize the philosophy and more emotional devotionalism. They prayed to it?as if the Buddha was really there and in a way I guess he was. I realized while watching the pilgrims that the stupa, more than anything else served the function of a living Buddha during the ?in-between times? between Buddhas. Just like the worship of the Buddha produces merit, so to the stupa. Just like the Buddha embodies the Dharma, so to the stupa. Just like the Buddha was the religious center, now the stupa is the center, is at the crossroads of the four directions, the whole universe. My own meditation focused on the nature of life and death and how my life was effected by it?.

May I conclude with the spirit of Olcott?s idealism expressed in Rabindranath Tagore?s poem, The Heaven of Freedom!

?Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high:
Where knowledge is free:
Where the world has not been broken-up into small fragments by narrow domestic walls:
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever-widening thought and action:
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.?

With those thoughts, ladies and gentlemen, I wish to conclude my presentation celebrating the memory of Colonel Henry Steele Olcott.

Sudharshan Seneviratne
Department of Archaeology
University of Peradeniya
Sri Lanka

Copyright © 2001 OAAV. All rights reserved.